Concertos for conductor

The other night in rehearsal we read through Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta for the first time. As it turns out, I have a conductor-colleague in the orchestra, and he came up to me afterwards to talk about the piece, which we’re both very fond of. He made the point that it is one of those pieces that is really harder to conduct than to play, and I would agree. It’s sort of a concerto for conductor- I’m hoping to use it at the conducting workshop next summer.

This got me thinking- almost none of the standard audition or workshop pieces for conductors fall into what I would call the “very difficult to conduct” category. I suppose that’s good- if they’re so hard, then the students or candidates may not be able to do anything. 

I looked back at the repertoire I had to conduct for the American Acdemy of Conducting at Aspen the summer I went there. 

Mozart- Overture to Die Zauberflote
Mozart- Violin Concerto No. 5
Mendelssohn- Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture and Incidental Music
Berlioz- Roman Carnival Overture
Mendelssohn- Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”
Dvorak- Serenade for Winds, Serenade for Strings, Cello Concerto
Beethoven- Symphony No 7
Tchaikowsky- Symphony No. 5 

Nothing too hard there. 

My first “assistant “audition was- Gershwin- American in Paris 

Mozart- Magic Flute Overture Johann Strauss Jr- Fledermaus Overture 

Beethoven- Symphony no. 5 

Again, the Fledermaus is tricky to do well, but not that hard if you know the style well. 

Rite of Spring is supposed to be hard to conduct, and L’Histoire du Soldat even harder because of their mixed meters, and in the case of L’Histoire the use of mixed meters superimposed over a regular time signature. The real problem with those pieces is that if you screw up, everyone screws up. What’s easy about them is that you can learn them at home with a metronome- you don’t need an orchestra to figure out the problems with. 

More problematic are pieces that involve a mixture of complex of unpredictable rhythms, tempo flexibility and give and take with solo players. Concertos can be the toughest, but so can a piece like Galanta because of all the tempo changes. If you don’t have the orchestra absolutely watching you like a hawk and trusting you completely, you can’t begin to make the piece happen.

So, here are some really hard pieces to conduct that I’ve come across- 

Nielsen- Flute Concerto (I’m sure this is harder for the conductor than the soloist)

Chopin- Either Piano Concerto 

Dvorak- Cello Concerto (strangely, most cellist conductors don’t find this hard, because we know how it goes, but I’ve seen enough disasters to add it to the list)

Schumann- Cello Concerto (one of my best friends in the business claims that cellists are too in love with our sounds to play in rhythm, but see Dvorak above…)

Sibelius- Symphony no. 3 (the last movement is so difficult that many conductors just leave out most of the difficult bits, like all the tempo changes, lifts and stops) 

Mahler- Das Lied von der Erde (the coda is the hardest thing ever for the players, and you have few chances to help them as you beat a very slow “one.” Very demanding and unforgiving) 

Debussy- Jeux and Iberia 

Copland- Short Symphony (much worse than Rite or any Stravinsky) 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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7 comments on “Concertos for conductor”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Chopin- Either Piano Concerto? Really? I would think its rather easy…follow the piano. nobody will know. Its all Molto Rubato. If someone screws up its sounds better!

  2. Lawrence Yates

    Hi Ken, the link to Galanta is broken – the “h” is missing from “html” at the start of the link.

    Sorry I can’t do the next Lancs Chamber gig – I’m already booked to play somewhere else.



  3. Sasha

    Hi Ken

    It seems to be the wrong clip- Harry Janos instead of Dances of Galanta. Still, Kodaly.


  4. Kenneth Woods

    Thanks Lawrence for pointing out the broken link- don’t know how that happened, but it is fixed now.

    Also, I can reconfirm, the clip is of Galanta, not Harry Janos, although I love that piece, I’ve never conducted it and wouldn’t have a clip to put up…

    Re- Chopin. I think a lot of conductors make the mistake of thinking the rubato all comes out in the wash, but it doesn’t. I’ve seen some stunning trainwrecks in those pieces…..

    Cheers everyone.


  5. Joanna

    Really? You think Nielsen is easier for the soloist? Having done it a couple of times now with radically different orchestras (but the same conductor), it’s wicked hard for everyone involved. Imagine a memory slip… *shudder* It’s intimidating.

  6. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Joanna-

    How lovely to hear from you! You must get back to Pendleton for a concert soon.

    Well, of course there’s no defending such a statement, but my sense is that when you go out on stage and both soloist and flutist know the piece, the conductor has a fiercely difficult job to not only make the thing hang together and respond to the soloist. In my experience conducting with very different, but absolutely wonderful, soloists, I was amazed at how different the interpretations could be.

    Maybe it’s just the control freak in me that I find the responding aspect of the Nielsen so rewarding yet challenging, but then again, if you’re playing it with a conductor who doesn’t follow you, then the tables are turned! Then the poor soloist has to accompany the orchestra, which happens all the time……

    Talk soon

  7. Sasha

    Oh, sorry! I just listened to the very beginning of the clip and it got me fooled – you probably know what movement of Hary Janos I was thinking of!

    Thanks for an interesting blog – I read the things you had written about marking the scores. You wrote that you want to include some scans of differently marked scores. I haven’t checked recently, but last time I could not find the scans.

    Best regards,

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